In the past, local jurisdictions were forced to rely on private industry's willingness to invest in infrastructure expansion to spur broadband deployment in their communities. If private industry didn't see a business case to justify the investment, no infrastructure was built to support broadband, and consumers played the waiting game.
Now, as industry standards for wireless broadband technology are rolled out, governments may be able to control their own digital destiny through the evolution of WiMAX.
WiMAX is like Wi-Fi's big brother -- it can deliver high-speed wireless connectivity over distances measured in miles, rather than yards.
Just like its little brother, WiMAX has its own association to promote growth in the marketplace and make sure vendors are on the same standards page.
The WiMAX Forum, a consortium of equipment and component suppliers such as Intel and Alvarion, works to promote adoption of the 802.16 standard for wireless broadband by ensuring interoperability among WiMAX-certified products.
The first wave of WiMAX products is expected in 2005, and the new industry standards and guidelines are expected to lower equipment costs and create stability in the market. Governments looking to deploy a network no longer have to depend on one vendor's proprietary solution, since any WiMAX product will work with any other piece of WiMAX equipment.
The 802.16 standard, on which the WiMAX guidelines will be based, is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standard for wireless broadband technology, which uses the 2-11 GHz spectrum. The technology eliminates line-of-sight issues often plaguing Wi-Fi deployments and allows for farther reach than the 802.11 standard, making it a relatively cheap alternative to wired broadband solutions for reaching sparsely populated areas.
Many governments are unaware of wireless broadband's capabilities, said Jasper Bruinzeel, Alvarion director of strategic marketing, because many in government see Wi-Fi as a wireless broadband solution.
"Really it's not," he said. "Wi-Fi is the technology for indoor use. Wireless broadband is the one for outdoor use and long-range applications -- technologies that cover an entire city or county."
Though there are some examples of Wi-Fi use in outdoor networks, he said such implementations can be challenging.
"In many cases, if you look closely, only very small downtown areas are covered, or we're talking about a multimillion dollar project," he said.
WiMAX networks, though optimal within three to four miles of the base station, can reach as far as 30 miles.
The standards and guidelines being developed for wireless broadband will likely boost acceptance of the technology, said Paul Butcher, manager of Intel's State and Local Government Marketing, because established standards allow hundreds or thousands of engineers from many different companies to contribute to developing the standard, resulting in a technology that everybody agrees on.
"You get the best-in-class features and see costs reduced because all kinds of people are building equipment to that specification," he said. "You see better interoperability between the equipment. So once the standard process happens, we tend to see technologies really taking off."
While wireless broadband may take over as the appropriate solution for outdoor use, Wi-Fi won't go away anytime soon, said Intel's Joe English, director of marketing for broadband wireless.
"Wi-Fi and WiMAX complement one another -- Wi-Fi being the technology that's the end point, the last 100 meters of the last mile," he said, adding that as the technologies mature, Wi-Fi will be capable of faster speeds and probably will remain the preferable technology for indoor use for some time.
While the standards will likely promote awareness and adoption of the technology, some governments already forged ahead. The technology is more affordable than laying fiber, and a few jurisdictions took broadband into their own hands.
Houston County, Ga., hopes to make its wireless broadband network available by year-end, said Matt Stone, Warner Robins city councilman and chairman of the Wireless Houston County Committee.
In December 2003, the county and its municipalities unanimously passed a resolution to pursue a countywide wireless broadband network. The Wireless Houston County Committee, composed of representatives of local governments, schools and businesses, as well as state legislators, worked with several companies to deploy a test network in May 2004.
The county teamed with Intel for guidance, and used Alvarion's equipment and engineering services to deploy a test network, which transmitted a signal with a net throughput of 6.8 Mbps across 12 miles. The test network has since been removed, and the county is pursuing a permanent deployment.
Despite the unavailability of WiMAX-certified products until the end of the year, Houston County is moving forward with deployment.
The committee originally discussed a WiMAX network, but decided pre-WiMAX technology would supply a viable solution, said Greg Richardson, president and CEO of Civitium, and former National Mobility Practice director for Siemens Business Services. Siemens was brought in to conduct research on network feasibility and recommend a business model to the county.
"We really felt as though -- based on the upgrade paths and some arrangements companies like Alvarion provide -- the technology could be deployed today, and then the technology could be adjusted over time as the standards evolved," Richardson said.
Stone said the county is happy with the test network.
"We're kind of a hilly region and have lots of pine trees, which are the universal killer of wireless signal," he said. "We were able to send the signal very far, and we are very pleased with those results."
Though Stone said 80 percent of the county already has wired broadband, using two towers to deploy a countywide wireless broadband network could not only achieve full coverage, but also make the service more affordable for residents, businesses and government alike.
Home to Robins Air Force Base, Stone said there are an abundance of defense contractors throughout the county.
"They all lease T1 line service and spend between $800 and $1,200 per month," he said. "We feel there's a case to be made that the same quality of service and security can be provided to those businesses at a lower cost."
Building a Business Model
The county is exploring possible use of a cooperative wholesale business model recommended by Siemens Business Services -- the county and municipal governments would pay for network deployment and upkeep, and would also create a cooperative or authority to run the network.
First-year operating costs, including deployment, are expected to cost approximately $700,000. Government and quasi-government agencies would become anchor tenants and purchase network services for wholesale prices. The arrangement would save money for government and quasi-government agencies, such as nonprofits and hospitals, which currently lease T1 lines.
"It would be a case where the government would start insourcing that instead of outsourcing it," said Stone. "As an elected official, the bread and butter of our business is saving taxpayer dollars."
Excess bandwidth could then be sold at wholesale prices to Internet providers, who would market the services to residential and business customers. Stone said he expects this would bring down prices for residential and business customers.
"Right up until this point, technology has been such that there has been a vertical value chain, where you've got a telco that does everything: They build the infrastructure. They operate it. They send you the bills," he said.
Creating a situation where several businesses can get in on that value chain, Stone said, could bring about more competition, which could then drive down prices and help boost the county's economy, allowing the county's many defense contractors to expand operations there.
"It also becomes an economic development tool to recruit and attract other businesses," he said.
While Stone said the deployment could probably drive down prices for end-users, the county never intended to compete with local service providers. As the committee began considering deployment, it kept local service providers in the loop.
"[We] met with our telcos locally to let them know what we were doing -- that the government was not colluding behind their back to take away market share or compete directly with them," he said.
Richardson said he thinks the cooperative wholesale business model could satisfy everyone, though it wasn't the only option presented to the committee.
"We presented two options," he said. "This is a very conservative political environment within Houston County. It's Republican led for the most part -- the mayor, council and so on. There wasn't a lot of tolerance for a government owning and operating a network, and certainly was not tolerance for competing with the private sector in terms of incumbent providers. We wanted to strike the right balance between the committee taking matters into their own hands and making sure universal broadband was available, but at the same time, respect the goal of being cooperative with the private sector."
Cooperating with the private sector, in this case, doesn't mean waiting for the private sector.
"This project gives us as the committee and the local government control of when and how the network is deployed," said Stone. "Instead of waiting on private enterprise, we can go ahead and deploy the network fairly rapidly."